KU grads transform Statehouse dome copper into jewelry

Britta McKee, a Kansas University graduate, is one of a handful of artists who are creating jewelry from old pieces of the Kansas Statehouse dome. McKee takes larger sections of the copper and cuts out small pieces to shape into rings, earrings and other jewelry.

Kristen Haug is among the artists selected by the Kansas Historical Foundation to transform weathered copper from the old state Capitol dome into one-of-a-kind jewelry. Many of Haug’s pendants start with a rectangle of green copper outlined in a silver frame. She adds silver flowers and vines growing up the side, “as if it was a door or window to a garden.”

The familiar green of the Statehouse dome may be gone, but visitors still can find bits of the old copper inside the Capitol’s gift shop, this time in the form of striking necklaces, bracelets, earrings and other baubles.

Three Kansas University graduates –Bailey Marable, Britta McKee and Kristen Haug– were among the five artists selected by the Kansas Historical Foundation to transform the weathered metal into one-of-a-kind jewelry.

Proceeds benefit the Kansas Historical Society, and will go toward educational programs such as Statehouse tours, said KHF Retail Coordinator Marla Holt.

The idea for the project originated when legislators gifted the foundation with a small amount of scrap copper following the removal of the old roofing in 2012. Repurposing the copper into jewelry seemed like a “logical first step,” and soon thereafter Holt began the search for artists.

She discovered Topeka resident Bailey Marable on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods.

Jewelery that evokes Kansas

Marable’s designs are often in the shape of Kansas and feature cut outs of wheat or hearts. One of her favorite techniques uses a rolling mill to create the impression of lace in the copper, which she said resembles a Kansas landscape.

Britta McKee, also of Topeka, describes her jewelry as “nature-like” and “very organic.” The 2009 KU grad said she prefers to leave the copper untouched for the most part.

“I enjoyed the greens and the patinas that are on it, so I tried to let that be shown and make it the focal point of each piece,” she said.

Many of Kristen Haug’s pendants start with a large rectangle of green copper outlined in a silver frame. The Silver Lake resident then adds silver flowers and vines growing up the side, “as if it was a door or window to a garden.”

A dirty job

Transforming the century-old, weather-beaten metal into beautiful jewelry is not without its challenges, Haug said.

For each order, the artists receive large sheets of copper and must cut them into more manageable sizes. After decades of exposure to sun and wind, much of the material is gnarled and coated with dirt.

“It’s a cool process, but it’s kind of disgusting,” Haug said. “You get your hands all black and it’s sharp and it’s pointy, and you turn it into something that is usable and treasured and worn.”

The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, Holt said, and the artists have had to work hard to keep up with the demand. Early on in the project, an inventory that was supposed to last three months almost sold out after just three weeks.

Marable said she makes about 200 copper pieces a month. Since the jewelry’s debut in January, several new customers have reached out to her through Facebook and her website. Her work has even earned her a famous fan — former Kansas governor and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

After spotting Sebelius near Pachamama’s during a recent Lawrence visit, Marable chased her down and offered up a pair of copper earrings.

“She sent me a personal email afterward thanking me for that piece of history, which was just a huge thrill for me,” Marable said. “I would have only said ‘Hey’ to her if I didn’t happen to be wearing this very thing that I knew she would treasure like I have and that so many people have.”

Holt hopes to have enough copper to continue making jewelry for another year. In the meantime, she said she’s looking for more artists to join the project.

The copper jewelry is available in the Capitol gift shop, which is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, as well as its online store, http://www.kshs.org.